Category: Commentary

Does Democracy Die with Dark Money?

An interview with author Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on his new book on how the Right Wing captured the Supreme Court with dark money

Vanessa Schipani
Vanessa Schipani

Vanessa Schipani is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at Penn and prior to the PhD was a journalist for over 10 years, including for FactCheck.org.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island doesn’t shy away from debate. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me – he’s a former attorney after all. But I was surprised, nonetheless. Media coverage of politicians often involves sound bites of deflection – clips of frustrating, not-quite-answering-the-question responses. So, when I sat down to ask Sen. Whitehouse about his new book, The Scheme: How the Right Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court, experience told me he would deflect as well.

For the most part, Sen. Whitehouse – who is a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, among others – did not give me those kinds of answers. I read his book, which he co-wrote with Jennifer Mueller, looking for holes and tensions in his argument, and (hopefully) my questions reflected that. It was, indeed, my intention to “grill” him, as he says at the end of the interview, and I’d say he withstood that grilling. Or as a philosopher would put it: He was a good interlocutor.

As a former journalist now researching journalistic practice through the lens of philosophy, since the interview I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s needed to cultivate an honest exchange between a politician and a journalist – a conversation of substance, not of sound bites – that also engages and informs readers. There are plenty of pieces in that puzzle, but here, I think, are two important ones.

First, time. Journalists need time to prepare thoughtful, well-researched questions – questions that bring out the nuance of the topics at hand. And politicians need time to get a grip on the topics they’re going to be grilled on. The interview itself must also be long enough to permit getting into the gray. And last, but not least, the reader needs to have the time to read the piece. I can say time was on my and Sen. Whitehouse’s sides. I hope it’s on yours as well.

Second, a commitment to being a good interlocuter – both the journalist and the politician. What does that mean? Examples usually speak louder than adjectives. Hopefully, the interview below provides a picture of what being a good interlocuter entails. But, in short, I think it involves listening to and respecting one’s debate partner, knowing what you’re talking about and having the freedom and ability to clearly articulate your ideas.

So, do I buy his argument? I’m not sure. Do I think dark money has flooded politics? That’s an obvious yes. Do I think the Right used dark money in an organized way to capture the Supreme Court? The verdict is still out on that one for me. As he admits in his book, Sen. Whitehouse relies mostly on circumstantial evidence. While this evidence may not win my full-blown belief, it does demand more digging. However, whether or not we buy his core argument, the solution remains the same – get dark money out of politics.

I interviewed Sen. Whitehouse after a panel event on December 9 associated with the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media (PCSSM). He was joined by Michael Mann, the PCSSM’s director; Kathleen Morrison, Chair of UPenn’s Department of Anthropology; and Joseph S. Francisco, a Professor of UPenn’s Departments of Earth and Environmental Science and of Chemistry.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

OpenSecrets reported that Democrats raised more dark money than Republicans in the 2020 election. You admit this in your book, while also mentioning a comment that a Republican senator made to you: “‘Democrats had better start raising a lot more dark money,’ if “we wanted to do anything about it.” Here’s the tension I see: Given the way that the game is played, you’re likely going to lose if you don’t raise dark money. But if you do raise dark money, then the public’s going to see Democrats as corrupted as well. Do you worry about that?

Imagine peewee football. One team goes out on the field, but they also bring baseball bats. When the ball is hiked, they whack the other team with the bats. That team would win really quickly. So, we have to bring baseball bats, too, in order to not be blown off the field.

The misdirection here is to focus on who’s using dark money. The real focus should be on who lets dark money onto the field – who requires it and protects it. The vote that we just had on my DISCLOSE Act makes it pretty clear – we got every single Democratic vote. We couldn’t get a single Republican to vote with us.

I think the failing of Democrats is not in using dark money ourselves, rather than letting ourselves be blown off the field. I think our failure is not understanding how important an issue this is both to our country and to the public and giving it the prominence that it deserves, so that we put real pressure on getting the baseball bats the hell off the Pee Wee football field.

The ACLU didn’t support the DISCLOSE Act. In a 2010 letter to the Senate, it claimed the bill “fails to preserve the anonymity of small donors, especially chilling the expression rights of those who support controversial causes.”

That’s false because the bill actually has a $10,000 floor. So if you think that somebody writing a $10,000 check is a small donor, well, we can have an argument about those terms. But I think what ordinary people think of as a small donor, we don’t even touch.

Why do you think the ACLU continues to oppose it then?

I don’t know. They go back to a case that’s important in ACLU legend: the NAACP membership case. In that case Alabama wanted the membership lists of the NAACP. At that time of state-sponsored violence against civil rights actors and against Black people in general, the NAACP sued and said, if we’ve got to give up all of our members, there’s a real danger that people are going to go to their doorstep with a can of gasoline or put a bomb in their basement, like they did to the churches.

The decision there – no, we’re not going to let that list out in this circumstance – was the correct, proper legal decision. But I think it’s not the same thing when a billionaire uses a front group to manipulate American politics to his advantage.

If the $10,000 isn’t the right break point, then maybe it should be $100,000, but at some point this business of anonymized manipulation of politics has to stop because it degrades citizens’ ability to understand what’s going on around them.

Speaking of citizens, I wanted to ask you about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

My least favorite decision.

In chapter 19 of your book, you address principles conservatives say they stand for, precedent being one of them. In fact, you say respecting precedent is at the “heart of the court’s legitimacy.” But you write that the conservative Supreme Court has repeatedly disrespected precedent, the overturning of Roe v. Wade being one example.

And Shelby County v. Holder, and on you go.

But you simultaneously argue that there are some court rulings that we should overturn, and I’m guessing Citizens United would be among them.

Absolutely.

So, how do you walk the line between rooting out what you’d call problematic rulings, but also stick to precedent?

If you brought together a panel of really respected lawyers and legal academics, you could whittle down to the fingers on one hand the number of cases where it’s widely accepted that something seriously went wrong with the Supreme Court’s opinion. So, the number of precedents that would have to be overturned to make things right is actually very small.

If you look at some of the real stinkers, they have a common flaw, which is that they stand to a significant degree on false factual premises. Why is that important? That’s important because as a matter of law, fact finding is not a role that belongs in appellate courts at all. It belongs in district courts. So, when the Supreme Court goes about fact finding, it’s in an off-limits area.

When the facts that it finds are provably false, then, not only are they in the off-limits zone, but there’s no factual credibility to their finding. So, there’s a principled way to look at those decisions and say – this decision needs to be struck down because of the false factual premises upon which it is structured – without throwing out precedent as a general proposition.

What then is the false fact in Citizens United?

The false facts in Citizens United are that the unlimited political spending the decision unleashed was going to be independent of political campaigns and transparent to the public. Neither is true. You have to rely on groups like Campaign Legal Center to explain how independence isn’t there because it’s a little bit complicated.

But the transparency piece is blindingly obvious. All you have to do is look at the so-called outside spending that’s taking place in the political races that just concluded. There is demonstrably non-transparent spending happening in our elections. So, there’s no doubt that that premise of the decision was wrong, and wrong not just at the fringes – it’s billions of dollars. It’s a systematic flood of hidden special interest influence. You really can’t get much falser than that.

Speaking of transparency, Mike Mann asked you a question about the role of the media in bringing to light dark money actors. As you noted, the media are under intense financial pressure, especially local news, and, for that reason, may not be as able to uncover corruption. Given that transparency is so important to you, and given that a central role of journalism in democracy is making the system more transparent, would you support more public funding for journalism? Or are there other solutions?

One obvious solution we hope to pass into law this year allows small media outlets to gather together and gives them an exception from anti-trust laws. They can then say to Google, Facebook and other big tech platforms – if you want our content, you’ve got to pay us – in the same way that a musician can say to a radio station you can’t play my song without paying me. I think this is a way to restore the market balance, so that revenues go back to newspapers.

That would be an easy first step where you don’t have to face the danger of a government-controlled media, like in Putin’s Russia. There’s going to be a lot of anxiety about too much government funding going into media outlets. I think we steer clear of that problem by fixing that market dysfunction. I think there’s a real likelihood of getting that done.

You mention multiple times in your book that some practice by the Right isn’t normal. It’s how you put together the circumstantial evidence that makes up your argument. So, that made me think, if I can find one instance where you say something isn’t normal and it is, then that’s a hole in your argument.

Right, exactly.

I may have found one and I’d like to hear your response to it.

Go for it.

In chapter 12 of your book, you discuss so-called ‘plaintiffs of convenience.’ You write, “When you start with the case and then go looking for the client, that’s abnormal, a sign of an ulterior purpose. Lawyers for the conservative movement make no bones about the fact that they’re challenging a law or policy that they just don’t like.” But plaintiff finding is a regular practice of civil rights movement actors and a big part of test-case litigation in general. In short, it does seem like a normal practice.

There are two points to make on this. The first is that just because two different groups do something abnormal, it doesn’t make it normal. And second is it’s totally not normal for people to come into court to seek to lose a case. That’s just not how the system works. Trying to lose is a very telling signal about what the litigants expect from the Supreme Court. Then throw in that after the Janus case I think the plaintiff of convenience was now on the payroll of the litigation group.

So, when you add up – wanting to lose, plaintiffs of convenience, putting the plaintiff on the payroll, having front groups litigating who don’t disclose who their donors are so the costs are absorbed by someone who’s not even in the court room – that puts up enough red flags. The court should have been more cautious about taking cases that come up to it that way. Instead, it welcomed those cases and provided them with a fast lane.

I’m also concerned that the continual finger pointing of the Left at the Right, and vice versa, is at the root of polarization. When you write a book as a Democrat pointing the finger at the Right wing, do you worry about contributing to polarization?

I’d go back to the analogy I used during the panel: If you think of our Congressional sphere as a playground, there are areas of the playground in which bipartisanship is possible and areas in which it’s impossible. Having been in Congress a while, I’ve seen that boundary shift. It shifted very abruptly on climate change after Citizens United. It went from being very bipartisan with lots of bills kicking around to 100 percent partisan with no Republican participation in any serious climate measure. Like that [snaps fingers] you could see the shift.

When you see a shift that sudden, you can’t help but look at why, and there you see the fossil fuel industry. It happened exactly coterminous with the Citizens United decision, which I believe the fossil fuel industry saw coming. They were ready day one to go into Mitch McConnell’s office, to go into the Speaker of the House’s office, and to say – you will have unlimited money from us if you knock off this climate bullshit, and we will torture anyone on your side who crosses us on this, and you, as the leaders, need to enforce this as party policy.

So, in a situation like this – where they’re spending at least tens, probably hundreds of millions of dollars, in every election – if you don’t go at that outside force that is putting pressure on colleagues, you’re never going to win the battle. I would actually make the argument that the more pressure I can put on the fossil fuel industry – the more I can call out its maligned behavior, the more I can make people suspicious of the industry and make it flinch back from its political influence mischief – the better the chance for bipartisanship.

In fact, Republicans might even be blinking at me that they’d like to help, like the guy in the prison camp who blinked in morse code ‘torture.’ Pretty heroic. There are Republicans who I have a good enough relationship with that I get the equivalent of that blinking.

There are countless conspiracy theories devoted to the idea of a deep state. Often people are told they’re crazy for believing them, but your book implies they might not be. For example, you write of “a system increasingly rigged with shadowy forces.” You do lay out evidence, but I worry that your book might support conspiratorial thinking generally, even if you’re right. How do you expose corruption, but avoid fostering conspiratorial thinking?

It’s hard to expose corruption without raising the notion that there is corruption. That’s sort of a self-proving thesis. The problem with the deep state argument is that it implies that the mechanism of government itself – the staff people, the career servants – are themselves the problem. But the problem is outside influence being brought to bear on those people. And you actually saw a lot of resistance from within the agencies to some of the weird Trump stuff because they knew it was wrong, if not illegal.

If you want to weaken government, and, therefore, make it more vulnerable to these special influences coming from outside forces, then having the American people think that those government staff folks – career civil servants and employees – are all a bunch of weird deep state aliens who are answering to some unknown master some place, that’s a really good narrative.

So, a lot of what your book is about is power: Corporate power. Supreme Court Power.

Totally. That’s the currency we’re dealing with here.

What’s the solution then? Do corporations have too much power? Does the Supreme Court have too much power?

I think the Supreme Court has way too little accountability. I think that the segment of corporate America that wants to play hard in politics has way too much power, and I think citizens have been dramatically deprived of power by being deprived of the ability to put the jerseys on the players and know who’s saying what on whose behalf.

There’s absolutely nothing in the Constitution – in the Philadelphia debates or in the Federalist Papers – that suggests any role whatsoever for non-human persons in American democracy. None. Not a whisper of it.

Corporations are not people?

Corporations are not people. They are not part of “We the People,” and they have no business in politics as the founders saw it. The role of corporations in our politics has been the creation of Republican appointees on the Supreme Court, beginning with Justice Lewis Powell and working their way through to the current court. One could easily envision a politics in which corporations had no role. One could very readily envision a politics in which, we’re going to give corporations a role, but they’re damn well going to tell us who they are instead of operating through some phony front group.

Is there anything you want to add?

No you’ve grilled me to the ground. I have nothing left.

Well, thank you Senator Whitehouse.

My pleasure.

Throwing Soup at Art Shifted People’s Views of Climate Protests—But Maybe Not In The Right Way

Michael E. Mann
Michael E. Mann

Michael E. Mann is a presidential distinguished professor of earth and environmental science and director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of the recently released book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet

Originally published November 15, 2022 12:29 PM EST on TIME

In mid-October, a pair of climate activists from the group “Just Stop Oil” garnered substantial international media attention when they threw tomato soup across Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” they asked the shocked and visibly distraught crowd of onlookers.

Now I have devoted much of my time and effort over the past several decades to the cause of meaningful climate action. And as someone who also studies what makes for effective climate communication, I worried that events like this could harm the cause to which I (and so many) have devoted my life. I thought about the way the event would be framed by the media—the viral spread of a terrible photo of what certainly appears to be the defacement of an iconic and priceless piece of art, accompanied by damning headlines of wonton destruction.

My fears were realized. Characteristic of much of the media coverage, the New York Times ran an article headlined “Climate Protesters Throw Soup Over van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’” featuring the offending photo of the soup-splattered painting. Only if you made it to the end of the sixth paragraph did you learn that the painting was protected by a glass pane and not damaged.

The public outrage was palpable. The reliably progressive Dan Rather, a consistent advocate for urgent climate action, opined: “It’s destructive to protest the destruction of our planet by trying to destroy beautiful art.” Activists complained that Rather got it wrong—that the painting wasn’t actually destroyed. But the vast majority of the public, who like Rather were subject only to a photo and a headline, wouldn’t know that. They would only see a damning headline and photo. That could and should have been predicted by the architects of the protest. I weighed in on twitter: “If you’ve lost Dan, maybe rethink your strategy folks.”

Yet advocates of disruptive non-violent direct actions have argued that I and other critics were all wrong. We just didn’t get it! Our criticism was tantamount to attacking the youths themselves! Some compared the intervention to celebrated acts of civil protest by Gandhi and Martin Luther King (though conceding that a favorable view of the protest was contingent upon knowing that the painting wasn’t actually damaged).

But those actions at least made sense. Anti-war protests took place on college campuses among young people who were being drafted. Lunch counter sit-ins were protesting white-only policies. The painting protest, by contrast, seemed bizarre and pointless, with no obvious message about the climate crisis. Who was the target? Van Gogh? Oil paintings (get it)? From a communications standpoint, the protest seemed like an even bigger mess than the soup-splattered painting.

So was it? That’s what we attempted to assess using a recent survey of public opinion about this and other similar protests. We asked respondents three questions. First, does the public approve of using tactics like shutting down traffic or seemingly defacing rare art to raise attention to climate change? Second, do these tactics affect public beliefs surrounding human-driven climate change? And third, does the framing of these tactics (e.g. whether or not the art was actually damaged) influence that support?

The survey confirmed what many had suspected. The public, overall, just doesn’t like this sort of stuff. A plurality of respondents (46%) reported that these tactics decrease their support for efforts to address climate change. A whopping 27%, in fact, said they greatly decrease their support. Only 13% reported increased support.

Some might suspect that the negative response is driven by older, out-of-touch folks reacting negative to the actions of the “young whipper-snappers.” It is true that younger respondents (18-29) were less likely to decrease support (39%) than the oldest (65+) respondents (53%). But all age groups showed decreased support.

Some observers have expressed incredulity over the notion that a non-violent protest could lead someone who cared about the future of the planet to no longer do so. It’s just not rational, they point out. And they’re right, it’s not rational. Because people aren’t always rational. Presumably these actions, at least for some individuals, create an affective rather than cerebral response, generating negative associations with climate activists. And that negative association translates to decreased support for their cause.

Given the political polarization that exists today on climate, we might not be surprised that Republicans reported the largest (69%) decrease in support. It is noteworthy however that even Democrats were more likely to report a decrease (27%) than an increase (21%). And independents, who might be critical in establishing majority support for aggressive climate policies expressed strong disapproval, with 43% reporting a decrease in support and only 11% reporting an increase.

The vitriol we experienced when we posted our findings on social media was perhaps not surprising given the anger toward critics at the time of the protests. But even academic proponents of these protests criticized and dismissed our findings, insisting the poll questioning was somehow loaded or misleading. My colleague Kathleen Hall Jamieson who helped design the survey has commented on the poll design: “The question is a neutral description of actions that occurred and were reported in news. A rationale for the actions is included in the question.”

The reader can judge for themselves. We first used a baseline question to assess respondents’ views of the climate crisis, asking whether or not they agreed with the statement: “Human use of fossil fuels creates effects that endanger public health.” More than 62% of the respondents answered in the affirmative, indicating that the group was predisposed, overall, to be concerned about fossil fuel burning and climate change.

They were then asked: “To raise awareness of the need to address climate change, some advocates have engaged in disruptive non-violent actions including shutting down morning commuter traffic and pretending to damage pieces of art. Do such actions decrease your support for efforts to address climate change, increase your support for efforts to address climate change or not affect your support one way or another?”

By describing protesters as “pretending” to damage art, we granted them the benefit of the doubt; we informed respondents, a priori, that the art wasn’t actually damaged. If anything, that should have primed an overly favorable response.

Critics of our study quickly brandished another recent (online) poll in the UK that purports a 66% level of support for nonviolent protests. They insisted it contradicts our findings. But that poll asked “Would you support taking non-violent direct action to protect the UK’s nature?” It didn’t even describe the disruptive acts in question, which means respondents weren’t confronted with the negative imagery of those acts. Furthermore, respondents were primed to give a positive response by being somehow promised that these protests would “protect the UK’s nature.” Were that environmental protection was that simple!

It takes substantial motivated reasoning to accept the findings of the UK survey and reject the findings of ours. And unfortunately, just as with climate change denial, there seems to be way too much motivated reasoning on the part of proponents when it comes to the topic of disruptive non-violent climate protests.

And what about the issue of whether or not the art was damaged. Did it matter to people? To investigate if that mattered to respondents, we split our poll sample. Half the sample was instead asked a slightly different version of the question, where “pretending to damage pieces of art” was changed to “damaging pieces of art.” The results were virtually identical, suggesting—somewhat surprisingly—that knowing that the art wasn’t actually damaged was not actually a mitigating factor with respect to public opinion. It didn’t matter. Presumably, it was the “thought” rather than the “act” that truly counted.

So, do our results suggest that there is no role for non-violent protest by climate advocates and activists? No. There are bad actors and villains in the climate space: Fossil fuel companies engaged in greenwashing campaigns, plutocrats who fund dark-money climate denial and delay campaigns, makers of gas-guzzling vehicles, the list goes on. A public opinion survey earlier this year by researchers at Yale and George Mason University finds that direct actions that target the bad actors (e.g. billionaires who fly fossil fuel-guzzling private jets) garner substantial support.

But actions that subject ordinary commuters to delays when they’re just trying to get to work in the morning, or subject art gallery visitors to the unpleasant, wanton apparent destruction of iconic artwork, are simply choosing the wrong targets. They are alienating potential allies in the climate battle. And protests that simply make no sense at all when reduced to a photo and a headline—which is what the vast majority of the public will see—are potential public relations disasters.

The youth protesters have their heart in the right place. But the organizations behind these protests need to do right by them by being smart about the design of any public interventions. That means, among other things, choosing sensible actions and appropriate targets. If we are to win the battle against polluters and their enablers, we will need public opinion on our side not theirs.

Note: The survey was designed in consultation with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the founding director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) and founder of factcheck.org. It was as part of a larger project examining public opinion on climate change and human health. The polling was conducted by SSRS, the same firm that conducted the late-breaking CNN polls that contradicted the “red wave” wrongly predicted by many other pollsters in the recent midterms. Analysis of the results was conducted by Ken Winneg, APPC’s Managing Director of Survey Research and APPC Research Analyst, Shawn Patterson Jr. (details can be found online).

Public Disapproval of Disruptive Climate Change Protests

By Shawn Patterson Jr. and Michael E. Mann

In mid-October, a pair of climate activists from the group “Just Stop Oil” garnered substantial international media attention when they threw tomato soup across Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London’s National Gallery. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” they asked the crowd.In light of these non-violent, disruptive protests the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) investigated the impact these actions have on public perceptions of climate change.

Over two surveys, we attempt to answer three questions. First, does the public approve of using tactics like shutting down traffic or gluing oneself to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earing to raise attention to climate change? Second, do these tactics affect public beliefs surrounding human-driven climate change? And third, do the framing of these tactics influence that support?

Overall, we find that the public disapproves of non-violent, disruptive climate protests. A plurality of respondents (46%) report that these tactics decrease their support for efforts to address climate change. Only 13% report increasing support. There are important sub-group differences in this measure of support – White respondents and Republicans were both more likely to report that these efforts decrease their support compared with Black or Hispanic and Democratic respondents.

Second, through a survey experiment, we find that priming these protest efforts does not affect respondents’ beliefs toward climate change. Specifically, we find that asking about non-violent, disruptive protests before asking whether respondents believe human use of fossil fuels creates effects that endanger public health does not influence respondents’ answers.

And finally, we find that these effects are not predicated on the framing of the tactics deployed. We find no difference in support for these efforts when we vary whether respondents are asked about “damaging pieces of art” or “pretending to damage pieces of art.”

These results shed some light on the potential effectiveness of efforts to raise awareness and support for climate activism.

Question 1 – Does the Public Support for Non-Violent, Disruptive Protest?

CLI1.      To raise awareness of the need to address climate change, some advocates have engaged in disruptive non-violent actions including shutting down morning commuter traffic and damaging pieces of art. Do such actions (decrease) your support for efforts to address climate change, (increase) your support for efforts to address climate change or not affect your support one way or another?

[IF INCREASE OR DECREASE]:

CLI2.       Do they (only slightly [decrease/increase]), somewhat [decrease/increase] or (greatly [decrease/increase]) your support for efforts to address climate change? 

Figure 1 presents the distribution of combined responses to the questions above. A plurality of respondents (46%) say that disruptive non-violent actions decrease their support for efforts to address climate change. Nearly as many (40%) say that these do not affect their support one way or another, while only 13% say that these actions increase their support.

Figure 1

Figures 2 and 3 highlight significant demographic differences in support for these tactics. 69% of Republicans report that these non-violent, disruptive protests decrease their support for climate action, compared to only 27% among Democrats. It is noteworthy however that even Democrats are more likely to report a decrease (27%) than an increase (21%) in support. Moreover, independents, who might be critical in establishing majority support for aggressive climate policies express strong disapproval of the tactics, with 43% reporting a decrease in support and only 11% reporting an increase.

White respondents and men are also significantly more likely to report a decrease in support, compared to Black, Hispanic, or Other Race respondents and Women, respectively.

Figure 2

In comparison, Democrats are significantly more likely to report that these tactics increase their support for efforts to address climate change in comparison to Republicans or Independents. Similarly, Black and Hispanic respondents are more likely to report increased support than white respondents. However, in contrast with Figure 2, there is no significant difference between men and women in their likelihood to report increasing support from these non-violent, disruptive protests.

Figure 3

While a plurality of the population appears opposed to such tactics (46%), the public could also be viewed as indifferent. These actions only slightly decrease (6%), slightly increase (2%), or have no effect (40%) on individual’s support for efforts to address climate change for 48% of respondents.

Question 2 – Do Non-violent, Disruptive Protests Affect Views on Climate Change?

CLI0.      Please indicate if you believe the statement below is true, false, or if you aren’t sure.

              Human use of fossil fuels creates effects that endanger public health

To address whether these tactics effect people’s perceptions of climate change, we embedded an experiment in the survey by randomly asking the above question to half of the respondents before asking about disruptive protests, with the other half being asked afterwards. This allows us to test the potential priming impact of these actions on support for climate action.

Table 1

To test this systematically, Table 1 presents the estimated effect of treatment (receiving the question about disruptive protests before asking the above question) on respondents’ beliefs that human use of fossil fuels creates public health dangers. The treatment indicator is a binary variable (treated or untreated) and the outcome is a five-point scale ranging from Definitely false (0) to Definitely true (1), with respondents reporting to be “Not sure” placed at the mid-point (.5). We control for pre-treatment covariates (age, college education, gender, party identification, and race) to account for any potential imbalance that occurred in the randomization.

As the first model coefficient demonstrates, while the treated group was very slightly less likely to agree with the above statement, the differences were not statistically significant. These results suggest that hearing about these protest efforts did not affect respondent’s views on the public health dangers of fossil fuels.

Question 3 – Does the Framing of Protest Tactics Affect the Levels of Support?

ORIGINALCLI1.        To raise awareness of the need to address climate change, some advocates have engaged in disruptive non-violent actions including shutting down morning commuter traffic and damaging pieces of art. Do such actions decrease your support for efforts to address climate change, increase your support for efforts to address climate change or not affect your support one way or another? [Emphasis Added]

NEWCLI1.               To raise awareness of the need to address climate change, some advocates have engaged in disruptive non-violent actions including shutting down morning commuter traffic and pretending to damage pieces of art. Do such actions decrease your support for efforts to address climate change, increase your support for efforts to address climate change or not affect your support one way or another? [Emphasis Added]

The final question we address in these surveys is whether the framing of tactics deployed by these activists affects public support of these efforts. For example, The New York Timesran an article titled “Climate Activists Throw Mashed Potatoes on Monet Painting,” further describing it in the subtitle as “the latest attack on widely admired art.” However, it is not until the fifth paragraph that the article notes that “the food did not cause any damage to the piece.” This raises the question, does the public differentiate between “damaging pieces of art” and “pretending to damage pieces of art” in their views of these non-violent, disruptive protests?

To test this question, we conducted a second survey where respondents randomly received one of the two above questions. Was the public responding to the particularities of the tactics, we would expect to see greater support (or less opposition) in the “pretending” condition. As we can see from the distribution of responses in Figure 3, there does not appear to be such an effect. Respondents provided similar distributions of responses regardless of whether the actions were presented as “damaging” or “pretending to damage” pieces of art.

Figure 4
Conclusion

Overall, the public expresses general disapproval of non-violent, disruptive protests to raise attention to the dangers of climate change. A plurality (46%) report that such efforts decrease their support for their cause.

However, these efforts have minimal effects on people’s perceptions of the dangers of climate change. Priming these efforts had no effect on people’s belief that human use of fossil fuels creates effects that endanger public health. Moreover, the framing of the actions appears to also have a small impact – respondents did not differentiate “damaging” and “pretending to damage” pieces of art in their appraisal of such actions.

Surveys

Both studies were conducted by SSRS on its Opinion Panel Omnibus platform. The SSRS Opinion Panel Omnibus is a national, twice-per-month, probability-based survey. All SSRS Opinion Panel Omnibus data are weighted to represent the target population of U.S. adults ages 18 or older.

Data collection for the first study was conducted from October 21-24, 2022 among a sample of 1031 respondents. The survey was conducted via web (n=1001) and telephone (n=30) and administered in English (n=1006) and Spanish (n=25). The margin of error for total respondents is +/-3.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Data collection for the second study was conducted from November 4-7, 2022 among a sample of 1025 respondents. The survey was conducted via web (n=995) and telephone (n=30) and administered in English (n=1000) and Spanish (n=25). The margin of error for total respondents is +/-3.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Analyses of the results were conducted by Ken Winneg, APPC’s Managing Director of Survey Research and APPC Research Analyst, Shawn Patterson Jr., Ph.D.

TikTok for Climate Change

Social Media Apps are an Underestimated Force for Change

Heather Kostick
Heather Kostick

Heather Kostick is a PhD Candidate at Drexel University and has over 10 years of experience in ecology and the environmental sciences.

Like many others during the start of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020, I joined TikTok after a few months of hemming and hawing. I thought it was a children’s or teen’s app where they did dances or dumb trends (re: tide pod challenge), but not necessarily something to be taken seriously. As the algorithm got to know my interests, I saw videos on cats, recipes, canning, Tolkien, Game of Thrones, anti-racism, international issues, and a myriad of other topics. Of course, as an ecologist and someone who cares about scicomm, I also ended up on Biology and Ecology Tiktok where I saw folks sharing everything from “stop baiting deer with corn because it’s spreading chronic wasting disease (CWD)” to “here’s what your microbio prof thinks about XYZ”. Eventually this evolved into slightly more niche topics like environmentalism, ecology, and climate change. It has been the climate change piece of the videos in my algorithm that has captured my attention the most.

As with anything on the internet of a specific topic, in this case climate change, there are a ton of videos that range from cutesy, 10-ways-to-reduce-carbonfootprint to sharing active protests and ways to stay safe during protests. Something that I’ve found that I believe might be unique to TikTok is organizing against fossil fuel companies in ways that they don’t know how to deal with. I have seen various creators gather intel and share information on how to essentially bully these companies into changing policies or effectively stopping pipeline construction through political action and protest. The majority of these “clock app” climate activists also happen to be indigenous people.

Birdie Sam, otherwise known as @Showme_Yourmask on TikTok, is a T’lingit two-spirit creator who focuses on educating to arm regular people with knowledge and activism tactics in order to “bully the rich” in an effort to combat the hold the fossil fuel industries have on the world.  Birdie’s first viral videos were on learning about abuse tactics and how abusers weaponize the victim’s reactions against them. Something clicked and Birdie realized that oil companies were using the same abusive tactics to trigger public reactions and use that to their benefits.

Birdie Sam discussing fossil fuel divestment and politics on TikTok.
“Somehow abusive people make their way to positions of power within those [oil] companies, and it’s world-wide.” – Birdie Sam

Realizing what abusive tactics these companies and their executives were doing, Birdie knew it could be used to their advantage to fight against them. @ShowMe_YourMask is often targeted for “violating community guidelines” for telling the truth about the damage oil companies and their executives are doing to the environment. One particularly formidable opponent for Birdie has been Enbridge, North America’s largest natural gas utility, and Birdie makes sure that people know exactly how Enbridge’s actions impact the environment and the communities they operate in. In particular, Birdie and their mutuals on TikTok were directly responsible for bringing the Stop Line 3 protest news coverage to the forefront of the country’s mind when local police officers in Minnesota started to get rough with protestors (but only after Birdie bullied local news stations into covering the protests which featured many teenaged protestors

“Every time I got a community guidelines violation for telling the truth [that] is what triggered the “bully oil executives” because the truth is bullying them somehow” – Birdie Sam
Birdie Sam sharing one of her signature TikTok videos on how to “bully oil executives”.

As flautist and TikTok sensation Lizzo says in her music: truth hurts; and it clearly applies to the work that Birdie has been doing and encouraging her followers to do. Birdie’s followers seem to be a diverse mix of Gen Z, LGBTQ+ folks, indigenous people, and interestingly oil workers. Birdie ended up on the side of TikTok where oil workers reside, and found that through interacting with them that oil workers have a lot of the similar health and economic issues that coal miners do. Many oil workers want to leave the industry but find it financially impossible to do – they’re trapped by the company. Birdie started to share resources on renewable energy jobs and engaging with the community in order to help.

Birdie’s particular brand of activism is not alone on TikTok and can be seen in other accounts. Climate Change is not the only activism you’ll see on the app either – activists involved with the 2022 Iranian Revolution, Russians protesting against their own government for the war in Ukraine, and Indigenous people and survivors of Residential Schools of the U.S. calling for support and action on the upcoming Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) review by the Supreme Court in mid-November.

Although TikTok has grown into more than just a trendy teen app, it’s not the only social media app activists use. Fossil Free Penn is a student-led activist group on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus and they are well-known for not just their traditional protest tactics (e.g., sit ins, encampments), but they also are known to utilize social media, particularly Instagram and Twitter, to spread the word about their activism and share their message and goals to the public. While their TikTok account is not very active, a quick search on the app will lead you to coverage of their protests. They primarily use Instagram and Twitter to communicate their mission, events, information sessions, and updates to their supporters. Fossil Free Penn is currently focusing on three overarching goals from Penn:

  1. Commit $5-10 million and/or land to the purchase and preservation of the People’s Townhomes.
  2. Divest from fossil fuels.
  3. Pay PILOTS.

Fossil Free Penn points out that Penn is only one of two ivy league universities who have not divested from fossil fuels, and is the only school of the great eight to not pay PILOTS. The student activists that make up Fossil Free Penn have been actively protesting and aiming, as they see it, to hold Penn accountable since 2014. To gain more of their perspective, I spoke to two Penn undergraduates involved with Fossil Free Penn: junior Katie Francis and freshman Eliana Atienza. We discussed how the Fossil Free Penn movement benefits from social media and the community of these individuals who truly believe Penn can be better and a leader in climate and community justice.

Both Katie and Eliana became involved with Fossil Free Penn thanks to their friends. For Katie it was a friend inviting her to the encampment in Spring 2022 that was her initial introduction to the movement. Similarly, Eliana was invited to a Fossil Free Penn training the same night she was invited to become involved with the recent encampment that ended on October 22. Both students feel that social media is an important resource for the movement in sharing news and ways to get involved, but it is the in-person actions that help the movement gain traction, and it’s the community of people that allow this movement to keep its momentum.

“Number one priority is people’s safety [when it comes to social media]. [Fossil Free Penn] hasn’t used social media as a tactic to get attention from Penn. The actions themselves are what puts pressure on Penn and that’s what gets the media coverage… which puts a lot of pressure on Penn.” – Katie Francis
“Social media can be very empowering and finding a community online that believes in what you are investing your time and effort and energy into is inspiring beyond words. But apps like sidechat [show] it can get really disheartening… there are two very contrasting parts to what it [social media] can do and what it has been doing.” – Eliana Atienza

Fossil Free Penn focuses its energy on not letting the backlash show on social media, but it’s clear that it exists. In addition to the potential administrative discipline students face for getting involved, the online vitriol and reactions from non-actors at protests remain a reality for these student protestors. Whether you search Fossil Free Penn on Instagram, Twitter, or Tiktok, you will see a mix of support and opposition for the movement. There’s a striking video on TikTok of the Homecoming football protest where a Yale parent is ripping a banner away from Fossil Free Penn protestors despite being asked by security to stop. In the same beat, you can see videos on others sharing the work the protestors are doing and why one might want to support their movement. Penn alumni from a variety of class years have also reached out to Fossil Free Penn to make sure they know they have support from past Quakers.

A Yale fan can be seen getting into a tug-of-war with Fossil Free Penn protestors at the recent Penn Homecoming football game.

Despite the heated debate that Fossil Free Penn can spark both in-person and online, one thing that must be noted is the unrelenting optimism of these student protestors. Although Katie and Eliana don’t speak for all students involved with Fossil Free Penn, but it is clear that this community has a common belief: that Penn can do better, and they believe that Penn can really be a leader in the community and beyond.

“We have hope that Penn can be a force for good and we’re working to do that. I would encourage everyone else to find that hope that the world can get better and to get involved in any capacity.” – Katie Francis
“People ask ‘why do you protest Penn, you’re a student?’ People who protest don’t do it out of hate for the institution, it’s out of a motivation to see Penn properly embody their goals. Penn can be a leader in climate justice and community justice. They have the brains and the funds to do so muich good for the community… they can set the precedent for so much positive change.” – Eliana Atienza

One thing is clear, social media is a key component of communication and education in activism. Instagram is an app that started out as a photo sharing app and after 13 years has evolved into more with users being able to post videos, reels, go on live video streaming, and shop. Instagram’s format allows users to share posts and information efficiently and makes it easy for activists to share meeting information, recruit volunteers, and raise awareness – as Fossil Free Penn has been able to do. TikTok may be one of the younger social media apps at six years old; and it may be contributing to our ever-shortening attention spans, but with over 1 billion active users its power cannot be denied. What started as a dancing and trend app for Gen-Z has grown into something more. With the help of the isolation brought on by the pandemic which forced TikTok to welcome millions of new users on the app, TikTok seems to be dominating in the arena of a place for the everyperson to share their message and educate the masses. Whether it’s bullying oil executives or sharing real-time protests to the app, it looks like TikTok is a force to be reckoned with for science communication and people should pay attention.

Malcom Turnbull Speaks His Mind

A revealing interview on the climate crisis and more with the former Prime Minister of Australia

Vanessa Schipani
Vanessa Schipani

Vanessa Schipani is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at Penn and prior to the PhD was a journalist for over 10 years, including for FactCheck.org.

Malcom Turnbull knows how to manage his time. Seeing as he’s a former Prime Minister of Australia, this should come as no surprise. For the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media’s (PCSSM) inaugural event on September 13, Turnbull visited the Perry World House to have a conversation with Michael Mann, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Directors of the PCSSM and the Annenberg Public Policy Center, respectively.

Promptly at 5:15pm, in the middle of the concluding announcements of the event, Turnbull walked off stage, gracefully apologizing that he had another meeting starting then. Some might take this as rude or inconsiderate. I found it admirable because it exhibited a certain bluntness, a certain disregard for formalities that I share, which is a trait rare among politicians. I’m not the first to observe these characteristics in Turnbull. According to a don at Oxford University, where Turnbull studied as a Rhodes Scholar, Turnbull was “always going to enter life’s rooms without knocking.” I suppose that goes for his exits as well.

Much like his time management, his answers to my questions exhibited a certain bluntness. We spoke about his many careers prior to becoming a politician as well as his views on Australian party politics, helping developing countries respond to climate change and holding the media accountable when they promote falsehoods. His exit from our conversation, like his exit from the stage, was quick and yet courteous. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You’ve had a lot of different careers. You were a lawyer, an investment banker, a journalist. I’m curious to know why none of those careers stuck.

I started off as a journalist when I was at the University of Sydney. When I was at law school, I had had a full-time job as a journalist covering the state parliament for a few outlets, for a television station, a radio station and a weekly newspaper. Then when I went to study in the UK at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, I had a job at The Sunday Times. I was the sort of student that professors despair of because I was always skiving off to do a story. When I was working at The Sunday Times, the editor was the late Harold Evans. Harry was a legend in those days. This is back in 1978. I remember him trying to persuade me not to continue my legal studies and instead focus on journalism. He said, if you continue studying law, you could end up becoming a lawyer, or worse still, a judge, or even worse – a politician. At least I didn’t become a judge. I enjoyed my journalistic days.

Did you always know you wanted to get into politics?

Yes, it was always an interest of mine. Indeed, shortly after I got back from Oxford in the early 1980s, there was a Liberal Party preselection for a seat in Wentworth, the district in Australia where we lived. I ran just for the hell of it and nearly won it. I was very relieved when I didn’t. I always stayed interested in politics, but I didn’t run again for federal Parliament until 2004.

You’re a member of the Liberal Party in Australia, which is actually center right. But you take what many would consider quite left leaning positions on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and climate change. To an American, this might seem strange. Why have you decided to call this party home?

It’s true that the center of American political gravity is very much to the right of where it sits in Australia. Having said that, the Liberal Party has moved very much to the right more recently. My leadership was brought down twice by the right wing of the party who always found me too progressive, especially too interested in taking action on global warming.

The Liberal Party was founded after the Second World War by Robert Menzies, who was Prime Minister for a very long time in Australia, from 1949 to 1966. He called it the Liberal Party deliberately because he didn’t want it to be seen as solely a conservative party. So, there’s always been this tension in the Liberal Party between what you could call conservative elements and small-L liberal elements. I was definitely from the small-L liberal side of the congregation.

Ultimately, I joined the Liberal Party because I was very much a classical, small-L liberal. I guess I’m just naturally inclined towards the free enterprise, liberal view of the world. But look, if I was 25 years of age today and I was picking a party to join, I don’t know that I would join the Liberal Party, unless I wanted to change it, because it has swung too far to the right. And that’s why so many of its hitherto safest electorates have recently been won by small-L liberal independents, who are all women, all progressive on social issues and all strongly in favor of taking action on global warming.

Speaking of global warming, during the event at the Perry World House, you made a point about emissions from developing countries. You mentioned that developing countries shouldn’t be able to continue using fossil fuels, despite the fact that developed countries have historically benefited from doing so. The climate problem is too dire, you said. But some – in particular, developing countries themselves – might argue this isn’t fair. Is there a way around this moral problem?

Let’s start with a fundamental point: If India, for example, were to reach the same level of emissions per capita as the United States or Australia, the planet will be doomed. So, what we need to do is to make sure the rich world is providing the technology to enable the clean energy transition to occur across the globe. The good news is that generating electricity with wind and solar competes with the price of burning coal.

If you think about it, with renewables you don’t need a gigantic national grid. You can have a solar farm and batteries in a rural community, and that community can be energy independent. They can use that solar power to connect themselves to the internet and satellites. So, there’s a lot of liberating aspects to the distributed nature of renewables. Mitigation-wise then, the moral problem is solved by sharing technology, particularly with poorer countries, by providing funding to support the transition to clean energy.

In terms of adaptation, you’ve got some gigantic issues. It is perfectly reasonable for a country like Bangladesh, let alone the Pacific Islands, to say we want the rich world – the people who put all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – to support us as we adapt to the consequences. Now, that might mean for coral atolls that will be submerged that we provide resettlement opportunities. It might mean that they move to New Zealand or Australia. In a place like Bangladesh, the challenges are just gigantic. Clearly, there are areas where people are going to have to retreat from, and we need to provide support for that.

The bottom line is, we in the rich world have got to recognize the mistakes that have been made, some of them in a negligent fashion, some of them because people didn’t know any better. We’re all in the same boat. We’re all on the same planet, and we have to act that way.

I also wanted to ask you about your response to a question during the event by a member of the audience, Michael Weisberg, who’s a professor at Penn and on the internal advisory board for the PCSSM. I should also mention he’s my PhD advisor, which is probably why I liked his question. He asked you about how we should respond when members of the media promote falsehoods, pointing specifically to the Rupert Murdoch media empire, which includes Fox News. You said that we should hold the media accountable, but you simultaneously said you’re no fan of censorship. Can we hold the media accountable without censoring them at all? It seems like there’s a tension there. 

The difficulty with censorship is that defining the right parameters for what speech you do not allow is very hard. If outlets are publishing information that is encouraging people to commit acts of violence or self-harm or giving them demonstrably false information about drugs, for example, I think most societies would feel restrictions on that are legitimate. Otherwise, people will generally say it should be left to the defamation laws.

Just putting the algorithm problem of social media to one side, the challenging thing we’ve got at the moment is that the so-called ‘mainstream media’ see themselves as operating partisan political platforms in which they seem to take no responsibility for peddling falsehoods – Fox News being the classic case. One example is the big lie that the 2020 U.S. election was stolen. That lie had real consequences. This is where you’ve got to ask yourself – is there something wrong if mainstream media platforms are actually disinformation operations that are sowing discord and division and spreading lies to undermine trust in the legitimacy of government?

To be clear, I don’t think we should censor this kind of speech. But we need the shareholders of the cable companies that broadcast news services that tell lies to take action. Advertisers should take action, too. We’ve had some successful advertiser boycotts of really maliciously misogynistic, destructive broadcasters – shock jocks, as we call them in Australia. People have got to take them on. It’s one thing to say the government’s no good or the president is hopeless or Congress is full of lazy people –express all of those opinions. But peddling lies has done enormous damage to the United States. So, business has got to be prepared to stand up and be counted.

So you think holding the media accountable shouldn’t involve censorship, especially from the government, but we need to use economic tools to stifle media organizations that promote falsehoods?

That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

But the algorithm problem in social media and the problem with the mainstream media are connected in a way – misinformation sells. So, that makes me wonder whether the economic tools you speak of are enough to solve this problem. Many scholars, including Victor Pickard in Penn’s Annenberg School of Communication, are worried about deeper problems with profit-driven journalism. His solution is greater government funding for journalism. What’s your take on public funding for the media?

I don’t agree that ‘for profit’ media is inconsistent with integrity in reporting. And government funding does not necessarily drive independent journalism – in fact, quite the reverse. The BBC and ABC are the exceptions. It’s a complex problem. Clearly, in licensed media the government can impose a fairness doctrine as used to be the case in the U.S. But so little media nowadays uses or needs to use licensed spectrum. So, I still think the answers include holding publishers to account by calling them out and pressuring business not to advertise with publishers who publish disinformation.

I’d like to ask you specifically about Rupert Murdoch. During the event and elsewhere, you said Murdoch, as a single individual, has done more damage to American politics than any other individual. That is a bold claim. Why Murdoch?

I challenge you – which individual has contributed more to distrust of the government in America than Murdoch? Who has done more? Which outlet has done more damage to America than Fox? I can’t think of one.

If you’re talking about one person, left leaning individuals might say Donald Trump and right leaning people might say Barack Obama. What about them?

Everyone’s got their favorite villain, but I think the point about Murdoch is he uses Fox News as a platform with utter recklessness. I don’t think Murdoch for one second believed the election was stolen. I’ve known Rupert Murdoch for nearly 50 years and the fanaticist, he is not. Not that it would make it any better if he believed it, but it suited his political and commercial purposes to amplify and promote those falsehoods. I should mention that he is being held to account for them in the voting machine companies’ defamation litigation. But apart from that, he’s not really been held to account at all.

One last question: You were the head of Australia’s Office of Water Resources and the Minister for the Environment and Water in the 2000s, during the Millennium drought. That was one of the worst droughts on record in Australia?

Yes it was bad, really bad. But it varied throughout the country. Australia is a giant country. Where our farms are in the upper Hunter Valley, the more recent drought from 2017 to 2019 was worse than the Millennium drought, but there’d be other parts where the reverse was the case.

I imagine that you were introduced to climate change before the 2000s?

I was, definitely. Hey, Vanessa I’m going to have to jump because I’ve got a hard stop at 10:30. What I recommend is you check out my recent memoir. There’s a whole chapter on water resources. It’s been great chatting, and I’m sorry I’ve got to jump. Good luck with your PhD.

No problem! Thank you so much. Bye.
Photo Credit: Eddy Marenco

Neither Doom, Nor Denial

An Interview with Climate Scientist Michael Mann, Director of the PCSSM

Vanessa Schipani
Vanessa Schipani

Vanessa Schipani is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at Penn and prior to the PhD was a journalist for over 10 years, including for FactCheck.org.

Michael Mann is an adherent of the notion that out of crisis can come opportunity. When his research on global warming led to death threats, he saw it as a chance to push back against deniers and improve the public debate surrounding human-caused climate change. But Mann, the Director of the new Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media (PCSSM), rejects doomism just as much as he spurns denialism. There is still a path forward, he says, where we can avoid catastrophic climate change and create a more equitable and just world in the process.

I first met Mann while vetting the claims of U.S. politicians as the science writer for FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan nonprofit based at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. For my very first article for the outlet, Mann walked me through why climate change is not a pseudoscientific theory, contrary to senator Ted Cruz’s claim that it could “never…be disproven.” My background in philosophy helped me catch the falsehood. Still, I was surprised to find allusions to the ideas of Karl Popper in the speech of a politician. But it was familiar terrain for Mann, who had seen the full spectrum of denialist tactics in his career.

That was back in 2016, then the hottest year on record, which is now tied with 2020. More recently, I sat down with Mann, who is also a Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science with a secondary appointment in the Annenberg School for Communication, to talk about the PCSSM, the future of climate policy, a new book he’s writing and how he got into climate communication in the first place. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get interested in climate communication?

I was sort of thrown into the lion’s den. Back in the late 1990s, my coauthors and I published the now iconic hockey stick curve, a graph that covers a thousand years of global temperature change and links rising temperatures over the 20th century to human activity. It became a very potent symbol and was attacked by climate change deniers. I found myself at the center of personal attacks that were aimed at discrediting me, as the lead author of those studies.

And even death threats, right?

Death threats and demands for me to be fired. Threats against my family even. An envelope of white powder was sent to me at Penn State, where I was a professor before coming to Penn. It was a very uncomfortable position to be in as a scientist. Nothing in your training prepares you to deal with bad faith attacks. It’s one thing to deal with scientific criticism – that’s part of the self-correcting machinery of science. But personal attacks intended to silence you have no legitimate place in science. As I found out, they are part of the ground rules of modern politics. So, I had to decide: Was I going to withdraw into my laboratory? Or was I going to fight back? I chose the latter and it set me on a journey that would ultimately lead me to greater engagement in the public discourse surrounding human-caused climate change.

In another interview you mentioned that you were initially “reluctant” to leave the laboratory for the public space. Why?

It’s just not what I signed up for. It’s not why I pursued degrees in applied math, physics and geology. Spending time replying to attacks takes away from your time to do science. But the attacks opened my eyes to the fact that malevolent forces are working to discredit the science that informs policy. Over time I’ve grown to embrace this role. I feel privileged to be in a position to inform this fundamentally important conversation, though it is miles away from where I started and what I thought I was going to be doing with my life.

The philosopher in me has to ask – was any part of your reluctance back then motivated by the trope of the scientist as value-free, and, therefore, as needing to stay out of the fray of politics, a value-laden world?

There is this trope, as you say, that the scientist should be impartial and that somehow also means we shouldn’t express our views about the implications of our work. This idea that we leave our citizenship at the laboratory door, it’s a crazy idea.

But would you say that, perhaps in part because of the climate issue, this trope of scientists has dissipated? Many scientists now seem to think they can stand up for science in the politics arena, but also aim for objectivity in their research. They’re not incompatible actions.

Yes, it’s been a long battle. I would say this is possible because so many before me created the space that I was able to move in to. In turn, myself and other climate scientist communicators of my generation have hopefully created even more space for the next generation.

Let’s talk about the PCSSM. The center’s main goal is to improve the public conversation surrounding issues of sustainability and climate. What does improvement look like to you?

Typically scientists who come into this think the problem is that we just haven’t explained the science clearly enough. If we can just get better at explaining, then of course the politicians will hear us. I learned the hard way that that’s not how it works. Yes, understanding the science is critical – we have to be able to inform people accurately about the risks that are involved and we can only do that with a fundamental understanding of the climate. But we have so much to learn from communication experts, psychologists and sociologists. We have to work together with these experts to improve discourse about science-related issues. One of the things that drew me to Penn, and this joint appointment with the Annenberg School of Communication, was the opportunity to work with people like Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who has been at the vanguard of research on science communication. It’s a dream come true.

Experts in the ‘science of science communication,’ like Jamieson, argue that science communication is an ‘environment’ that involves interchange among various actors, not just the top-down transmission of information from experts and journalists to the public. The name of the center includes the term ‘the media.’ Will the center concentrate only on journalistic communication?

I’m glad you asked that. Think of ‘media’ as interpreted very broadly, including social media, including the arts – everybody who’s involved in science communication in some way, so definitely broader than journalism. Journalism is a big part of it, but it’s definitely the larger ecosystem of science communication that we’re concerned with.

What about the term ‘sustainability’ in the title of the center? The ad for the post doc positions affiliated with the center mentioned that you’re looking for people who are interested in climate communication, but with links to other areas of science denialism, including vaccines and Covid-19. How do these issues get folded into concerns about sustainability?

You’ll notice that the term ‘climate’ isn’t actually in the title of the center. That tells you something. Yes, a lot of what we’re concerning ourselves with is going to be climate-related because that’s arguably the defining sustainability challenge of our time. But one can interpret sustainability quite broadly – in fact, more broadly than purely environmental sustainability, including societal stability and issues of justice and equality. I was pretty careful in choosing a name for this center that isn’t exclusionary and allows for all of these broader conversations.

Recently, there have been some major changes in the climate policy arena, but it’s still not enough. The next ten years are crucial. Where do you think we’ll be when it comes to combating climate change ten years from now?

I’m optimistic. We’re in this really interesting historical moment, where the United States and Australia have recently signed into law major climate legislation. Because we’re making real progress now, we’ll look back and see this as a turning point, I think. So, ten years from now, there will still be challenges left, but we’ll have a tailwind at our back. By the way, this is going to create an interesting conversation with Malcom Turnbull, the former Prime Minister of Australia, who will be our inaugural speaker at the center on September 13.

I heard you’re writing a new book. What’s it about? 

The title of the book will be The Benevolent Moment and it’s about the lessons we can learn from past climates to help us with the current climate crisis. It was an opportunity, frankly, to get back to the science. I had written a couple books that were about the politics of climate change, and I wanted to get back to my scientific roots.

I think one of the most interesting things that I wrote about when I was at FactCheck.org was that the climatic period that we’re in right now, the Holocene, is unusually stable when it comes to geological history — so stable that it permitted civilization to develop as it has.

That’s right, and yet at the same time, while global temperatures haven’t changed much since the end of the last ice age, there have been some regional changes, like the Middle East became drier and drier. It was actually aridification in Mesopotamia that drove the development of irrigation. So, climatic changes have also, to some extent, forced us to develop some of the infrastructure of modern civilization.

A silver lining of sorts? That makes me think to ask, is there an anti-doomism message in the book? You’ve spoken elsewhere that climate doomists are just as wrong-headed as deniers.

Fundamentally, anything that threatens to take global temperature outside of the range of the past ten thousand years is a threat. But looking at some of the distant past periods does end up pushing back against doomism. Take the PETM [Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum], a period 55 to 56 million years ago when there was a sudden warming event. There’s been speculation that it was caused by a massive release of methane, but if you study the science closely, it tells us that this is not the case. So, when some of the doomists say it’s too late, the methane is leaking out of the arctic permafrost and we should just enjoy the planet while it’s still livable, that’s based on an erroneous interpretation of the paleoclimate record. This means that we can prevent catastrophic consequences through concerted climate action, but at the same time, if we do nothing, if we continue with business as usual and burn every fossil fuel that we can get ahold of, then the record tells us pretty soon you do start to run up against fundamental threats to the stability of civilization. So, the truth is in between the extremes, the doomists and the deniers.

The truth always is somewhere in the middle, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. As the late climate scientist Steve Schneider once said, when it comes to climate change, the ‘end of the world’ and ‘good for us’ are the two least likely outcomes.